On a recent coffee date with a former student, he told me he only likes rhyming poetry, and he recited two poems by Frost and Shelley from memory. It is easier to memorize rhyme, and most children’s books rely on a rhyme scheme, but poems do not have to rhyme to be successful. Poems only need to have, as Orwell said, “the right words in the right order.”
In preparation for my move from Ohio to Seattle, I’m poring through boxes of old manuscripts to separate the chaff from the salvageable. I find two thick folders in my file cabinet labeled FAILED POEMS. I haven’t looked at these since I moved into this house eight years ago. I scan the folder, perhaps hoping the poems had rewritten themselves.
While a couple of them aren’t half bad, that also means they are not half good. The words were out of order.
I led a workshop once where I laid out a selection of my own failed poems and allowed participants to choose one to rewrite, make it their own poem. I was stunned by the results. Where my words hobbled like injured athletes, the work-shoppers stanched the wounds and allowed them to bleed productively. Those words were not mine to begin with.
What makes a poem falter? There are infinite reasons. Each of us brings our lives and reading experiences to the table when evaluating a piece of writing. While there are agreed-upon craft qualities, such as diction, syntax, form, and content to qualify a piece as a poem, how and why a poem moves us differs from person to person. Many of you will disagree with what I write here. In fact, I hope you do.
When a disaster occurs, such as 9/11 or the more recent killings in Gaza, as poets our instinct is to write about it. Writing is how we process pain, joy, betrayal, success, and failure. We can’t not write, but sometimes we shouldn’t. And if we do, we should stash those drafts in a file marked NOT NOW, and move on until we have enough perspective, otherwise the poems are likely to be filled with histrionics and cliché. Of course there are exceptions. Wislawa Szymborska’s The End and the Beginning transcends the maudlin.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
Szymborska draws upon her perennial experience through many wars because,
straighten selves up, after all.
Poems fail because they are not authentic. The title intrigues, the words themselves glitter the page, yet ultimately the poem is vapid; it is a mannequin in the store window wearing a great outfit you want to try on, and the first few lines seduce you, but in the end the zipper is stuck, or the pants are too short. Failed poems do not deliver on their promise. Here is a humiliating example from my own “work” from a workshop at Kenyon. The italics are my comments.
The Science of Abduction (interesting title.)
Begin with a turtle;
Study how it crawls under barbed wire.
It digs and digs; nobody hears.
Don’t flee. (I’m with you so far, but where are you going with this?)
If you wield a revolver
You might chase yourself
In the foot
Attack dogs sniff for flags
Of scent (WTF????)
Try not to get killed
By a train bound for Seattle.
Creep like a leopard in a nudist colony.
Treat stab wounds
Like children who qualify for amnesty
And reduced priced lunches.
Ransom out coffee beans
As if Starbucks held a yard sale
At the county jail.
Say what? What was I smoking?
Individual parts of this poem contain decent wordplay. I like the consonance in, “Try not to get killed by a train bound for Seattle,” and the line, “Ransom out coffee beans as if Starbucks held a yard sale at the county jail.” These lines are elegant, but have nothing to do with the catchy title. Overall, this poem lacks structure. How did I get into Kenyon again?
Failed poems are often self indulgent. Poetry is not True Confessions magazine, nor is it the therapist’s couch. Yes, we are driven by our demons and cumulative life experiences, but the “I” in a poem isn’t really about you. If it is, the work is vanity, not poetry. Granted, countless published works pick at old scabs, and on the surface look self indulgent. Take Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Their poems center on personal anxieties and abuses. What transcends their work above being mere self is their attention to craft. For example, Plath’s metaphorical language in “Insomniac,”
The night sky is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack with the much poked period of stars,
draws the reader inside the waking nightmare of the poet’s mind. If confessional poems succeed, they transform experiences into universal themes and not the narrow lens of woe-is-me. (I won’t debase myself further or torture you by revealing one of mine here.)
A couple years back, I workshopped one of my poems entitled “Emily Dickinson Goes on a Date with Edgar Allen Poe.” It’s an intriguing concept, and writing the poem was great fun. I imagine Poe cruising up to the Dickinson home wearing leather, driving a Harley, while the shy Emily reconsiders the wisdom of this move. Throughout the poem I make allusions to both of their works and quote Whitman as well. The poem is cute, but overall a disaster. It’s one of those poems you read aloud only in the company of poet friends amid several open bottles of wine.
Like good fiction, the apparent subject of a poem floats to the surface while the truth simmers in the interstices. Billy Collin’s masterful poem “The Lanyard” begins with a simple tale of a kid proudly presenting his mother with a lanyard he has made just for her at day camp, as if this cheap piece of plastic puts their love on equal footing. The poem’s irony sucker punches us with a universal truth that children believe they are entitled to being the center of their mother’s universe, and,
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
Poetry is a dialogue between the poet, the subject and the reader. Like a well supported argument, a poem conveys its intent to convince you of its merit. The chief failure poets suffer is they don’t read enough poetry.
I am a failed poet. Most of what I write is a mess. This is a statement of fact, not an apology. I never apologize for my writing. I’ve written a handful of fine poems, stories and essays, but my work is always in process. Aren’t all poems?
Laura Moe has failed not only as a poet, but as a novelist, short story writer and essayist in many venues. She holds an MFA from Goucher in Creative nonfiction. Find her blog at laura-moe.blogspot.com.